The Breakfast Table

The Precautionary Principle

Dear George,

I love the universe of bubbles with different maths.

Last night my 6-year-old son told me that life might be beginning even now in the slush beneath the ice surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. This was the first I had heard of it, but, given journalistic morals, that may not stop me attributing it to a highly placed source in NASA next time I need to refer to it.

The Brookhaven Black Hole was feared, Peter Demchuk tells us, especially in England, which comes as no surprise to me. This country has an especially cautious and mistrustful attitude to science right now, as the debate over genetically modified foods illustrates. Some date it to the mad-cow epidemic, which taught us to distrust scientific reassurance. Or perhaps it’s a side effect of that disease.

In any case, we take the precautionary principle very seriously over here. We are furiously worried about global warming, for instance, even though a) the evidence seems to me to be growing that it will be modest and is partly driven by solar activity rather than by carbon dioxide, and b) England would get a better climate with a couple of degrees of warming. Still it gives us the excuse to chastise you Americans for not paying more for your gasoline. In vain do people like me argue that the first steam railway, the Liverpool to Manchester, was nearly stopped because local farmers thought their horses would abort their foals when they saw a train traveling at 15 mph.

You might be intrigued by how I first heard about the worry about igniting the atmosphere with nuclear weapons. I was working at the Economist at the time (this was the mid-1980s), and another writer there who shall be nameless, but who is a classic anti-progress Brit, looked into my office and asked if it was true that the Manhattan Project scientists had worried that the hydrogen in the atmosphere might be ignited by the bomb. Impossible, I said, because there is no hydrogen in the atmosphere, at least no gaseous hydrogen. I added that all or most hydrogen atoms in the atmosphere were in water vapor. That was all the encouragement he needed. Ah, so the bomb could have split the water and burnt the hydrogen? No, I said, because that’s what water is: burnt hydrogen. But he wasn’t to be put off and insisted on printing the story as an example of scientists’ recklessness, despite my protests to the editor. How could you be sure it couldn’t have happened? he kept asking. It was only a few years later that I realized he had misheard the story and meant nitrogen all along–much more plausible.

The problem with the precautionary principle is that it ignores the need to take precautions against the danger of doing nothing. The other day I was in a debate about GM foods and my opponent firmly said that “golden rice,” the new GM variety with added vitamin A, was not the right way to solve vitamin A deficiency in the Third World and should not be developed further. How could she be so certain? I asked. Why not give it a try? Otherwise, the blindness of half a million poor children a year would be on our consciences for doing nothing when we could be doing something.